By Julie Engebretson
Every year, a number of Baylor’s brightest undergraduates prepare applications for academia’s most prestigious international scholarship programs. Scores of Baylor students have received Rhodes, Fulbright, Marshall, Truman and other such scholarships over the past century or so, which not only earns acclaim for themselves and the university, but proves invaluable to many students as they prepare for high-level careers with an international focus.
Elizabeth Vardaman, associate dean for engaged learning in the College of Arts & Sciences, is Baylor’s coordinator and student liaison for several domestic and international scholarship programs. Under her experienced guidance, students request letters of recommendation from mentors, write and re-write personal essays, organize their curriculum vitae and gather all materials necessary to compile applications that shine. Then, they wait to hear if they’ve been selected.
Two recent Baylor recipients of prestigious scholarships are now using them to advance their studies overseas and gain an international perspective in their chosen professions.
Typically, the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission notifies Marshall Scholars of their award over the phone. In the fall of 2015, however, when then-Baylor University Scholar major Jacob Imam (BA ‘16) became one of only 32 American university students to receive a coveted Marshall Scholarship, he didn’t own a phone.
“I found an email on my computer that began: ‘Dear Jacob, CONGRATULATIONS!’ I was at my mom’s house in Seattle, and I went for a walk praying a rosary before telling my family about the good news,” Imam said.
Established in 1953, the Marshall Scholarship may be used for study at any university in the United Kingdom, with most Marshall Scholars choosing to pursue an advanced degree during their two years of British education. Imam is now wrapping up his second year at the University of Oxford, where he will earn a master of philosophy in Islamic studies and history. In a place such as Oxford, Imam said he has gained as much outside the classroom, through a rich tradition of spirited discussion and debate in local pubs, as he has in his coursework.
“Professors frequently join their students in a pub and casually discuss their subjects together,” Imam said. “The newly founded Chesterton Society meets at the most traditional Oxford pub in town for distinguished debate, paradoxical insights and good friends. The Marshall Scholars in Oxford gather together every Thursday evening at what we call ‘Marshall House.’ One of the scholars will choose a topic for the week and lead us in discussion. These are always fascinating nights, especially as I seldom share the same views as the other Scholars.”
As president of the C.S. Lewis Society, Imam said the group has enjoyed hosting guest speakers including parliamentary lords, leading scholars and “even a former archbishop of Canterbury.” But Imam’s godfather, Walter Hooper, who served as C.S. Lewis’s secretary in the early 1960s, always draws the largest crowds.
For his master’s thesis, Imam is looking at how the Qur’an retells Biblical narratives, changing details slightly to provide new theological interpretations. His background in languages includes spoken Arabic, Latin, Greek and Ancient Hebrew –– which should prove invaluable as he plans to continue his postgraduate education and become a scholar who enhances interreligious cooperation among all faiths, bridging some of the most critical issues dividing East and West. Working within an academic setting, Imam intends to expand educational developments in the Middle East, specifically in the West Bank. He has been selected by Oxford faculty for a full tuition scholarship to earn a Doctor of Philosophy in theology and religion at Oxford, beginning in the fall of 2018.
“My curriculum reforms will enable Christian and Muslim students to begin a dialogue with one another that stems from their shared search for the transcendentals, or the ultimate desires of man,” he said. “Eventually, I hope to be involved in diplomacy or consultant informing politicians how to understand the cultural implications of certain policies. My aspirations could include someday becoming involved in the leadership of a university in the Middle East.”
Jade Connor earned a BS degree in biology from Baylor in 2017. When she learned in March of that year that she had received a prestigious Fulbright study grant –– becoming the university’s 48th student Fulbright recipient since 2001 –– she was halfway out the door to nearby La Vega High School to tutor struggling students. Grabbing her backpack, she just happened to quickly check her email.
“The Fulbright notification was the first email in my inbox,” she said. “I was almost late for tutoring that day because I kept reading it over and over. I couldn’t believe I had been named a finalist.”
Fulbright Grants are awarded each year to make it possible for graduating university seniors, young professionals, artists and graduate students to study in more than 140 countries.
In September 2017, Connor began a master’s degree program in governance and leadership in European public health at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. Packed into one year of study, Connor’s program requires that she absorb a great deal of information in a short amount of time.
“Classes are structured in modules instead of semester-long courses, so you’re never taking more than two classes simultaneously,” she said. “Modules are about one month long and, so far, have focused on familiarizing us with the different types of public health issues in Europe. We have been discussing the current refugee influx in Europe and its health implications. We’ve also talked about the migration of patients and health professions from eastern to western European countries.”
Connor has observed at least one clear difference between healthcare in Europe and in the United States –– universal healthcare. She said that while most Europeans view healthcare as a right, conflicting opinions regarding healthcare across the U.S. present a significant challenge to improving healthcare policy on this side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, Connor is eager to learn about policy and practices that may improve patient outcomes in America, particularly for sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
“Our current module is focused on evaluating and analyzing healthcare interventions specific to individual countries,” she said. “And, next semester, I will be working with the Alzheimer’s Center in Limburg, researching support interventions for the caregivers of patients with dementia. In my career, I hope to effect change outside of my own practice by creating public health programs for these patients that can be implemented across cultures and socioeconomic strata in the United States.”
As a markedly international city, Maastricht offers visitors the opportunity to learn about a variety of European cultures, in addition to Dutch culture and language. Adjusting to the metric system is a challenge, and Connor said she must be mindful to resist the tendency to “Americanize” everything — that is, viewing or filtering everything through the context of her American experience. Still, as part of the Fulbright requirements, Connor sometimes gives talks at secondary schools throughout The Netherlands about her life in the U.S.
“We share aspects about the American way of life with young Dutch students and discuss our specific field of interest — medicine and public health, in my case,” she said. “This, in part, helps Dutch students with their English, and it’s a way to contribute to the cultural exchange between the Dutch and Americans.”
After earning her master’s degree in July 2018, Connor plans to return to the United States to visit her family before relocating to Boston, where she will attend Harvard Medical School.